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Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation: Differences & How to Use Each

intrinsic and extrinsic motivation
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Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are the two main types of motivation. Intrinsic motivation focuses on internal rewards and drivers like the joy of learning while extrinsic motivation is comprised of external drivers like an incentive or reward. However, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation can be used together to achieve an optimal balance of motivating factors.

What is Intrinsic Motivation?

Intrinsic motivation represents all motivational drivers that focus on internal rewards. People who are motivated intrinsically engage in an action or set out to achieve a goal because it is internally satisfying or rewarding. Typically, the action or achievement of the goal itself is the motivating factor rather than the reward at the end.

Example of Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is self-rewarding. For example, if you want a promotion, not because of the salary but because you’re excited to learn new things and take on more responsibility, this is an act of intrinsic motivation. Using another example, if you volunteer at a soup kitchen because it makes you feel good, then it’s intrinsic motivation, too, even though it’s affecting people outside of yourself.

What is Extrinsic Motivation?

Extrinsic motivation represents motivational drivers that focus on external rewards, like getting a raise or avoiding punishment. Extrinsic motivation relies on outside factors to incentivize you to in order to achieve a goal or engage in a task or habit, making it potentially less sustainable than intrinsic motivation because it’s outside your direct control.

Example of Extrinsic Motivation

Extrinsic motivation focuses on external reward systems. For example, if you’re motivated to get a promotion because of the exected salary increase, this is an act of extrinsic motivation. Using the other example, volunteering at a soup kitchen because you want to impress someone is an external motivator even if you’re helping someone in the process.

The Difference Between Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation

The main difference between the two types of motivation is that extrinsic motivation comes from outside forces or drivers, while intrinsic motivation comes from within yourself – i.e., self-motivation. For this reason, I believe that intrinsic motivation is more sustainable than extrinsic motivation because your motivational driver is within your control, while extrinsic motivation typically relies on factors outside your direct control.

This makes these two types of motivation seem diametrically opposed, although this isn’t true. In fact, if you learn how to balance the two together, you can become both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated, supercharging your life in the direction of your goals and desires.

It should be noted, however, that too much of one or the other might actually be a bad thing. Studies show that if you try to motivate yourself extrinsically for something in which you already have intrinsic motivation, you might actually decrease your internal drive, relying on external factors to get you up in the morning. This is known as the “overjustification effect.”

However, other studies argue that it all depends on the specific type of extrinsic and intrinsic motivator. For example, the external reward of verbal praise has been shown to increase intrinsic motivation while the incentive of more money might actually decrease internal motivation.

What this shows is that if you balance the two correctly, it can lead to high levels of motivation. For example, you can increase your internal drive for something in which you have no interest if you first give yourself an external reward for achieving it. Still, it’s important to understand when one or the other is better, or when to use both.

When Intrinsic Motivation is Better

I believe that all else equal, intrinsic motivation is better than extrinsic motivation. This is because intrinsic motivational factors, such as the desire to learn, are directly within your control. Conversely, extrinsic motivational factors are somewhat based on the actions of others and are outside of your control. If you can muster the internal drive to achieve something, it’s better to use that then wait for some external factor to motivate you.

For example, if you play sports, motivating yourself through your love of the game is better than trying to motivate yourself through the fear of losing. However, this is not always true, which I discuss below.

When Extrinsic Motivation is Better

The fact that intrinsic motivation is typically better than external motivators doesn’t mean that extrinsic motivation isn’t important. While intrinsic motivation is more within your control, there are times when you can’t muster the internal drive to take action or achieve something. In these cases, it’s important to seek external drivers that can motivate you.

For example, if you want to lose weight but know you lack the internal drive to consistently go to the gym, sign up for a 5k or half marathon. This gives you a deadline and an external reason for getting in shape. The result is positive, but the motivating factor is external.

When to Use Both Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation

In most cases, however, the key is to use both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, balancing the two against each other. The hard part is to find the right balance so you don’t skew too far one way or the other. However, this balance is completely dependent on not only the individual but also the goal you’re trying to achieve.

Let’s face it, like I said above, the best motivating factor is intrinsic motivation. If you can be completely self-motivated, no one will be able to strip you of your desire to succeed in the arena of your choice. People who are self-motivated are typically happier with the achievement of their goals and desires than people who are strictly motivated by external factors. For example, if you get true enjoyment out of your current job, you might just be happier than the person striving to become CEO just because of the stock options that come along with it.

However, almost no one is solely motivated by either internal or external rewards. Instead, we typically have some combination of both that motivates us, which isn’t only ok but is actually the best strategy available. Finding the right balance between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation maximizes your overall motivational force. For example, if you actively want a promotion because the job will bring on new challenges and learning experiences, and you also want it because there’s a pay raise, then you’re maximizing your motivation.

In this way, it’s important to pursue things that are both internally and externally rewarding. However, you can also use extrinsic motivation to increase your intrinsic motivation. Using another example, perhaps you hate working out but you do it anyway because you want to look more attractive to the opposite sex. 

While this is an external motivator, throughout the course of working out, you just might find that it’s enjoyable and that you like the rush of endorphins, and become intrinsically motivated to exercise. Think of it as a carrot and stick, except the carrot makes you enjoy the process of chasing it.

Remember, however, that too much extrinsic motivation can actually squash your internal drive. If you’ve been following, internal motivation is better than external rewards. So, as you work on balancing your intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, and as you use extrinsic motivation as a way to increase your intrinsic motivation, don’t go overboard. A pay raise is nice, but truly enjoying your work is the ultimate.

Factors That Affect Intrinsic & Extrinsic Motivation

While there are only two broad factors that affect intrinsic and extrinsic motivation (internal vs. external rewards), there are many factors within these umbrellas that can motivate you, either internally or externally. Let’s now take a look at the key factors that can increase either your intrinsic or extrinsic motivation.

Factors That Affect Intrinsic Motivation

Here are the key factors that can both increase or decrease your intrinsic motivation:

  • New knowledge or skills – People who are internally motivated are often motivated by the acquisition of new skills or learning experiences. A thirst for knowledge, for example, is a classic internal motivator.
  • Engagement and accomplishment – While this might seem like an external motivator, people are typically motivated by their own accomplishments (for the sake of accomplishment) and the active participation (and agency) in their life trajectory and career path.
  • Praise or positive feedback – Studies show that people are more likely to self-motivate if they either have positive internal self-talk or are praised by people they respect. If you want to increase your intrinsic motivation, make sure you have a positive view of yourself as well as surround yourself with positive people.
  • Sincerity – Don’t lie to yourself. You have a better chance of being intrinsically motivated if you’re honest regarding how you feel when pursuing a goal or desire. If you feel insincere, you might quickly become demotivated. At the same time, other people can increase your intrinsic motivation by being sincere with their feedback. If you want to increase your internal motivation, find people who give you honest feedback that helps you in the pursuit of your goal.
  • Gut instinct – Ultimately, if you want to motivate yourself intrinsically, go with your gut, and do what feels good. If what you’re doing feels right, then don’t argue with yourself – keep doing it.

Factors That Affect Extrinsic Motivation

Here are the key factors that can either increase or decrease your extrinsic motivation:

  • Raises, commissions, and bonuses – The classic extrinsic motivator is money or wealth. How many of us would actually want to be musicians, actors, or CEOs if there wasn’t the opportunity for riches? The answer is not many. If you want to motivate yourself or those around you externally, try to achieve higher earnings.
  • Completion or contingent rewards – These represent rewards given to you for the completion of a task or based on your historical performance. Raises, commissions, and bonuses technically fall under this umbrella, but completion or contingent rewards can be anything from money to more vacation days.
  • Unexpected rewards – This is self-explanatory, but represents rewards that you did not expect to receive. For example, if your boss gives you a raise out of the blue, it might motivate you to work hard in the hopes another unexpected reward is on the horizon
  • Fame or exposure – If you expect that a goal or course of action results in fame or increased exposure to people you respect or what to know better, then your extrinsic motivation will be higher.
  • Sex and intimacy A classic motivator, our desire for sex and intimacy is often thought of as one of our highest motivating factors. A lot of our actions stem from our belief that we may be rewarded by the opposite sex (or the same sex, if that’s your thing).

Other Types of Motivation

While both intrinsic and extrinsic motivation are considered two of the main types of motivation, there are many others that motivate people. For more information on the specific types of motivating drivers, check out my article on the top types of motivation.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

What’s the Difference Between Internal & External Rewards?

Internal rewards represent all motivating factors that are internally driven. For example, wanting a promotion because you want to learn and grow your skill set would be an internal reward. External rewards represent all motivating factors that are external and somewhat outside your control. For example, wanting a promotion because it comes with a raise is an external reward.

Is it Better to be Intrinsically or Extrinsically Motivated?

It is typically better to be intrinsically motivated rather than extrinsically motivated. This is because internal motivating factors are within your control while external factors typically rely, in part, on someone or something else. However, there are times when extrinsic motivation is better – such as when you lack the internal drive – and times when combining both is best.

What’s the Relationship Between Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation?

The relationship between these two types of motivation is that they are opposites of each other. One focuses on internal rewards while the other focuses on external rewards. However, it’s possible to use extrinsic motivation to increase your intrinsic motivation, and vice versa.

Conclusion

Overall, a combination of both internal and external motivation is the best way to motivate yourself and also be motivated by factors outside of yourself. In fact, you can become internally motivated by first rewarding yourself externally, and vice versa. The end result is that you’ll achieve both happiness as well as the goals you desire, increasing your overall probability of success.

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